02/09/2015 3:23PM

Bergman: Interesting new fine print on Meadowlands stakes

Derick Giwner
Meadowlands Racetrack.

The Meadowlands will usher in a new era of stakes racing in 2015. Without the general fanfare we’ve been accustomed to hearing about when revisions and innovations are implemented, the Meadowlands quietly put in new language attached to the nomination blanks necessary for entry into many of its biggest stakes races. Many owners and even trainers don’t take the time to read the small print at the bottom of nomination blanks since for the most part its repetitive of what has come before it year over year.

Perhaps the Meadowlands is looking to rebound in some ways from a minor embarrassment that occurred in one of the 2014 Breeders Crown races. Of course we are writing about the elite two-year-old pacing colt event that was won by a trainer that had been banned in Ontario but was able to race in New Jersey.

“We wanted to close the loopholes and take a firm stand on the heels of what happened in the Breeders Crown.  The benefit is simple. It is entirely about integrity and sets what we think is an important precedent going forward.  Owners need to be held responsible for what their trainers do.  If you don't want that responsibility you shouldn't be an owner,” said Darin Zoccali, Director of Racing at the Meadowlands.

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The Meadowlands has added broad language that essentially gives the track carte blanche to amend all the rules to any of these significant stakes events.

Amendments: The Meadowlands reserves the right to add to, amend or delete the conditions of all or any part of these conditions, without liability including but not limited to:

  1. Eligibility of horses, fees and payments, racing conditions, format, the amount and distribution of purses to be awarded in each race and/or elimination;
  2. Time and/or date of declarations; Dates and/or the location of the Races including the date of the eliminations;
  3. Other matters that The Meadowlands determines to be necessary and appropriate for the proper administration, promotion and implementation of the race(s).

A key revision to the new rules for stakes races prohibits the transferring of horses from one stable to another within a 30-day period before the race. In other words, should an owner be employing a trainer that is not qualified to race at the Meadowlands that owner could not just switch trainers two weeks before the stakes race to make his horse eligible.

Zoccali and the Meadowlands top brass are looking to send a powerful message with these changes, and that message essentially is that owners will be held responsible for their choice of trainers and the owners and horses will be penalized severely.

Zoccali indicated that Rene Allard’s nominations to stakes races would not be accepted, echoing the words of Jeff Gural in a recent HRU interview.

“I think Jeff's quote from Harness Racing Update sums that one up: ‘I'll go broke before I let Rene Allard race here’,” said Zoccali.

While loopholes were attempted to be closed with the new language, there are still questions that need to be answered and probably won’t be in advance of any of these major races.

Considering the new stand, why would any owner declare a non-Meadowlands acceptable trainer on his nomination blank for these stakes races?

Nominating a horse to stakes races is something that adds value to each individual horse. An owner has the ability to change trainers whenever he or she deems fit. What about an owner that wants to nominate for the purpose of re-selling his horse down the road?

One thing that’s very concerning about the new language is the latitude it offers the racetrack to amend pretty much anything that’s in writing. These events are late closers with a majority of the purse money coming from the owners and not the racetrack. Yet despite a “minority” stake in the actual purse, the racetrack holds all of the advantages to change the rules and the majority of owners are powerless to fight back.

Here’s a scenario that is more than possible. Let’s say an owner nominates and sustains a horse throughout the process with a trainer that is permitted to race at the Meadowlands during the entire timeframe. Then, within 30 days of the stakes race his trainer is alleged by the Meadowlands private investigator to have broken a track rule.

Should the owner not be allowed to change trainers?

Regardless of the assumptions that an owner should know what kind of trainer he is employing, we’re on a slippery slope when horsemen not suspended by racing commissions can force owners to lose large sums of money simply based on allegations.

It’s understandable why the Meadowlands top brass wishes to amend the rules in the first place. It’s difficult to understand the need to have a so-called “blank check” to revise the terms at a later date after owners have faithfully nominated and made sustaining payments.

A key element to racing is the sense of fairness to all.

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The Meadowlands employs a private investigator to go after alleged impropriety. The investigator has done an effective job of rooting out certain individuals. While I believe in the integrity of both top Meadowlands officials, Jeff Gural and Jason Settlemoir, and perhaps they have made it clear to the investigator that he is to place their trainers under the same scrutiny as everyone else, but is it realistic to believe that he would find his boss’s trainers to be in violation of any rules? The investigator is only human.

In the case of new language and ideas to make the sport cleaner than ever, Jeff Gural is on the money. It simply seems that some of the new rules cause as many questions as they solve.